Philadelphia Orchestra Release

Florence Price’s music showcased by The Philadelphia Orchestra and Yannick Nézet-Séguin

Deutsche Grammophon will release an e-album on 24 September 2021 featuring two orchestral works by Florence Price (1887-1953) – Symphony No. 1 in E Minor (1932) and Symphony No. 3 in C Minor (1940). This is the initial release in a planned series of recordings that will highlight the first African-American woman to have her work performed by a major American orchestra.

Yannick Nézet-Séguin, The Philadelphia Orchestra’s Music Director and Conductor, offers that, “So much important music around the world has been neglected, not because of the quality of the work, but for superficial reasons. It’s so important to me and to The Philadelphia Orchestra to look at these works, bring back the music of composers we believe in, like Florence Price, and continue broadening the repertoire to give a much more diverse representation of who we are as a society today.” Florence Price herself spoke to this neglect in a November 1943 letter to, then Music Director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Serge Koussevitzky, with an opening salutation declaring, “My dear Dr. Koussevitzky, to begin with I have two handicaps –those of sex and race.”

Florence Price, 1933 (image: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries)

This recording project is one of the many programs to which the Philadelphia Orchestra has committed attention in an effort to acknowledge the systemic complexities of race. Another promising example, ‘Our City, Your Orchestra,’ is a series of free online concerts performed by small ensembles at Black-owned businesses and iconic cultural locations throughout the Philadelphia region. Partner locations have included the National Marian Anderson Museum, Harriett’s Bookshop, the Historic Belmont Mansion/Underground Railroad Museum, and The Franklin Institute, among others. Repertoire is chosen specifically for, and in collaboration with, each location to speak to its unique mission, and interviews with leaders at each venue also help to tell their stories. About the ‘Our City, Your Orchestra’ initiative, The Philadelphia Orchestra President and CEO, Matías Tarnopolsky, submits, “Particularly during this time of separation, we look forward to collaborating in this special way . . . to share the inspiring stories of friends and neighbors at these vibrant Philadelphia institutions.”

The Pew Research Center further acknowledges the existence of society’s racial complexities in a 2020 survey, reporting that most Americans feel it important to understand the history of racial inequality, in turn, using this understanding to address disparities that still exist. These findings underline the importance of projects like The Philadelphia Orchestra’s commitment to presenting the music of Florence Price. The two pieces released for this Deutsche Grammophon recording, while not yet helping to result in policy and societal changes, have enhanced The Philadelphia Orchestra’s repertoire and created more access for underrepresented populations within the medium.

Florence Price was encouraged by George Whitefield Chadwick to embrace the melodies and rhythms of indigenous peoples while she studied under his tutelage at the New England Conservatory – a directive not so dissimilar from that of Antonin Dvořák when he was asked about developing an American sound for Classical music. Chadwick’s advice proved advantageous when filtered through Price’s voice. In 1932 Florence Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor was awarded first prize in the prestigious Wanamaker Competition. It was because of the Wanamaker Competition that the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s Music Director, Frederick Stock, became aware of Florence Price’s piece, conducting the world premiere a year later. The Chicago Daily News reported in June 1933 after the premiere that the Symphony was, “. . . a faultless work, a work that speaks its own message with restraint and yet with passion . . . worthy of a place in the regular symphonic repertory.”

The Philadelphia Orchestra’s recording highlights Price’s ability to craft a series of Bohemian-like melodies that seem to spin out from the ensemble similar to Dvořák, except, Price’s perspective feels more worn; a perspective that speaks from being composed decades into the twentieth century through the lens of segregation and having experienced Jim Crow laws. It is very much appreciated that Nézet-Séguin decided against taking the optional cut in the first movement. Also appreciated in this movement is the brilliant horn playing throughout various exposed excerpts led by principal Jennifer Montone.

“Re-evaluate expressive qualities of intervals; the differences in [the] rise and fall of a major third.” Page from Florence Price’s Diary, circa 1947-1950. (Image: Special Collections, University of Arkansas Libraries)
Psalmody-like orchestral responses are presented at various times in the second movement. Price’s ability to ascend by way of eclipsed gestures scored for varying instrument timbres is both impressive in its construction and inspiring in execution. The lyricism offered in extended passages featuring oboe soloist Philippe Tondre should make one a devout listener. The triple meter is performed in a comforting manner, led beautifully by our trumpet cantor, David Bilger. A small African drum makes its way into the percussion writing, assumed to be the result of encouragement received under Chadwick’s mentorship. Impressive clarinet acrobatics and placed altered harmonies in the trombone voices remind one of the pastiche that is American music.

The third movement is titled Juba Dance, which is an African-American style of dance that involves stomping, as well as slapping and patting one’s arms, legs, chest, and cheeks. The small African drum from the second movement is now joined by a large African drum and wind whistle. Articulations are well-observed and effectively communicated throughout the Orchestra. The movement ends a bit oddly, but Nézet-Séguin’s approach does provide closure.

The final movement brings the work to a rousing end with Tchaikovskyian-like ballet writing, paired with passages styled after those common to virtuosic piano compositions, all of which is reimagined through Price’s point of view. Woodwind and string consorts alike perform with impressive precision. Audiences who streamed The Philadelphia Orchestra’s performance of this work online in November 2020 were surely treated to a rewarding experience.

In addition to being included on this Deutsche Grammophon release, The Philadelphia Orchestra will make an online streaming performance of Florence Price’s Symphony No. 3 in C Minor available in December 2021. The Third Symphony extends the instrumentation present in the First Symphony, as are the compositional techniques used and the emotional affects explored – all probable reactions of being commissioned during the Great Depression and the Chicago Black Renaissance.

One may get the sense that this work opens in an operatic way, responding with harmonically complex chromaticism to an event that transpired before the first downbeat of the Symphony is given. These tensions are calmed by an authoritative, yet reassuring, solo trombone melody played by Nitzan Haroz. Attention seems to be paid to this and other tenor voices of the ensemble by Price, often featuring these timbres while introducing material that will later be developed.

Like in her First Symphony, the second movement of the Third Symphony is written in triple meter. The movement is painted with pastels spotlighting instrument-family groupings that, when combined with other instrument families, could suggest a sonic depiction of Americana. The third movement also draws similarities to the First Symphony, given the title Juba Dance again. Unlike the First Symphony, however, this third movement is host to a more expected collection of percussion instruments. Unusual is an extended xylophone interlude that adopts the movement’s playful aesthetic.

Credit must be given to Maestro Nézet-Séguin for finding overall convincing ways to navigate the fourth movement’s ever-changing tempi indications. His success in doing so allows the piece to breathe. I don’t know if any amount of artistry can account for the abrupt ending of the composition though.

Florence Price composed more than three hundred known works including symphonies, organ pieces, piano concertos, compositions for violin, arrangements of spirituals, art songs, and chamber works. Unfortunately, much of what seems to be offered about Florence Price is concentrated on Price’s association with others, be it her childhood friend and neighbor, William Grant Still; Marian Anderson often concertizing Price’s arrangements of spirituals; or Frederick Stock and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra playing the world premiere of Price’s Symphony No. 1 in E Minor. While the world is a connected series of relationships, I look forward to Price being known for Price. She is enough. Her work is worthwhile. The Philadelphia Orchestra, Yannick Nézet-Séguin, and Deutsche Grammophon have taken a critical step to provide access and representation to an important voice of American Classical music – albeit almost seventy years after Price’s death.

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